LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State University's interim president told state lawmakers Thursday that he wants to reach a financial settlement with the women who were sexually abused by sports doctor Larry Nassar by May, but he said the passage of sweeping child abuse legislation is interfering with the process and could lead to higher tuition.
John Engler's comments were criticized by legislators and the state's lieutenant governor and refuted by lawyers representing more than 250 girls and women who have sued Michigan State, where Nassar worked while he molested young athletes under the guise of treatment; current and former university officials; USA Gymnastics; and others. More than 150 of the accusers are represented by the California-based Manly, Stewart & Finaldi law firm, which is working with two Michigan-based firms on the case.
"I'm very optimistic that we can get it done," Engler told a state Senate budget subcommittee in his first appearance at a legislative hearing since becoming president last month. "But it was put on pause when the California plaintiffs' bar felt that they had allies in the [Michigan] Legislature to advance a package of bills to change the negotiations."
On Wednesday, the state Senate approved bills that would retroactively restrict Michigan State's ability to claim governmental immunity in the lawsuit and let victims of childhood sexual abuse sue for claims dating back to 1997. That was the year that gymnast Larissa Boyce says she notified then-Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages of concerns about Nassar's "treatment" but was persuaded not to bring a complaint because there would be serious consequences.
"We can negotiate a settlement, but we have to have somebody to negotiate with," said Engler, suggesting that the measures let Nassar's accusers hold out "hope" they do not need to negotiate. He said the school supports Senate-passed legislation that would expand who must report suspected abuse to authorities, "but a number of the bills have nothing to do with supporting the survivors at all. They're all about changing the leverage in the negotiations."
The higher education subcommittee's chairwoman, Republican state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton, said Engler's comments were "insulting to the victims out there. If you've talked to any of these victims, I think that they are not bringing this as a result of California trial lawyers. Every individual and victim out there deserves to be represented."
Schuitmaker, who is running for attorney general, defended the legislation that will next be considered in the state House, saying it would be "wrong" for some Nassar victims to be compensated while others could have their lawsuits tossed on statute of limitations grounds. People sexually abused as children in Michigan generally have until their 19th birthdays to sue, which critics argue is inadequate because victims often wait to report the abuse due to fear.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican who is running for governor and who has urged Michigan State to drop attempts to dismiss the suit and to instead create a victim compensation fund, tweeted: "The legislative package does not prevent negotiations -- it makes them possible. Without it, most survivors will likely be steamrolled and never get their day in court. It's time for MSU to stop making excuses and enter mediation."